Sullivan stands close to Trump, stays quiet about his controversies

Trump sits at a desk, signing paper. A man and a woman stand behind him
Sen. Dan Sullivan and his wife, Julie Sullivan, watch President Trump sign the Save Our Seas bill in 2018 (White House)

Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan can be a hard person to pin down, especially when he’s asked about President Donald Trump’s statements and behavior.

Take last year, when Trump was accused of pressuring Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden.

“I have no comment on that until I see what the facts are. I’m not going to learn the facts from reading it in the press,” Sullivan said, just as the door closed on the senators-only elevator in the Capitol.

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Two days later, Sullivan was asked about a rough transcript of a call where Trump seems to be pressing the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden.

“I haven’t read it yet,” Sullivan said.

A month into the impeachment inquiry surrounding that call, Sullivan would not say whether he thought Trump was acting solely in the national interest in that conversation. He paused and posed a different question instead.

“You’re framing the question — what the issue has been right now is, (does) the transcript demonstrate an impeachable offense?” Sullivan said in an interview in his Senate office.

When he first pursued the Senate seat, in 2014, Sullivan ran on a campaign to rein in then-President Barack Obama. His strategy was to tie the incumbent Democratic senator, Mark Begich, to Obama and the national leaders of his party, and Sullivan ran against the whole platform.

RELATED: Alaska U.S. senators quiet on colleagues’ critique of Trump

As he runs for re-election, Sullivan is threading a needle. He rarely criticizes Trump. According to the website, he votes Trump’s position more than 90% of the time.

But as a tide of anger at the president rises across much of America, Sullivan isn’t waving a Trump banner, either. He barely mentioned the president’s name in his first debate with Al Gross.

Yet Sullivan is constantly challenged to defend or denounce Trump’s latest tweet or action. It’s an odd spot for Sullivan, since he was quick in 2016 to call for Trump to leave the race when the “Access Hollywood” tape came out. This time, Sullivan says he’s voting for Trump.

“He was overwhelmingly supported by Alaskans. And I thought my job — and it is my job — to work with him,” Sullivan said on “Talk of Alaska” recently. “He’s proven to be a very strong partner for Alaska.”

Jim Dodson of Fairbanks doesn’t think Sullivan should have to respond when asked about something Trump says or does.

“Dan Sullivan is a busy man, and he deals in significant issues, very significant issues,” said Dodson, president of the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp and one of Sullivan’s campaign co-chairs. He said Sullivan has been brilliant at convincing military leaders that Alaska is the place they want to invest and keep their newest aircraft.

RELATED: Could the Marine Corps be coming to Alaska?

It’s not just that Sullivan is an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve. Dodson points to Sullivan’s service in the White House under President George W. Bush, and in the State Department. He said Sullivan understands global dynamics, and has the credibility to make the case for Alaska’s strategic importance.

Sen. Dan Sullivan and Marine Gen. Robert Neller in Anchorage in 2016. Showing off Alaska’s attributes to military brass is one Sullivan’s specialties, in the Senate Armed Services Committee and during Senate recesses. (Ben Matheson/Anchorage)

“That stuff takes years to know. It takes years to understand. And Dan has spent those years and he understands it,” Dodson said.

In Dodson’s view, Trump’s latest tweet or speech just isn’t relevant to what Sullivan is working on, so it’s no wonder Sullivan doesn’t talk about it.

Money is now pouring into the Alaska Senate race, with Sullivan raising more than $9 million and Gross at nearly $14 million. Outside of the candidate campaigns, other groups have spent more than $21 million to sway voter opinion, and more than 60% of that is aimed at helping Gross.

Early in the year, Sullivan’s seat was considered safe Republican. But J. Miles Coleman saw the potential for drama. He’s associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election forecasting newsletter published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. 

“This race in Alaska, for me, it’s becoming maybe one of my pet races,” Coleman said.

Coleman said his was one of the first national forecasts to downgrade Sullivan’s chances. The Crystal Ball now has the race at “leans Republican” – one notch above toss-up.

Sullivan, by quietly sticking close to Trump, is positioning himself just as other vulnerable Republican senators have in places like North Carolina and Iowa, Coleman said.

“If they’re going to win re-election, they need as much of that Trump Republican base as they can get,” he said.

RELATED: Sullivan took a stand against Trump’s withdrawal from Syria border. Now he says Trump had no good options

Sullivan does not always side with Trump. He opposed the president’s steel tariffs. He criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the Syrian border (though he later revised that). And while Trump has repeatedly denied that the Russians meddled in the 2016 election, Sullivan said last year he has “no doubt” Russia did interfere with the election in a systematic way.

Anti-Trump political strategist Reed Galen said Sullivan hasn’t stood up to Trump nearly enough.

“In too many instances, his silence equals complicity with President Trump’s misdeeds,” said Galen.

Galen is a Republican and co-founder of the Lincoln Project. Six years ago, he flew to Anchorage to help Sullivan prepare for debates against then-Sen. Mark Begich. Now, his group is spending more than $3 million to oust Sullivan.

The Lincoln Project is working not only to defeat Trump, Galen said, but every Republican senator who stood by him. 

“United States senators have enormous authority. They have enormous sway. They have enormous ability to move things or not move things based on how they believe that administration is operating,” Galen said. “And every time, these senators have rolled over on their Article 1 responsibilities to hold the executive branch accountable.”

But polls show Donald Trump is likely to win Alaska, so that thinking might not carry the day in the 49th state. A majority of Alaska voters might be happy to have a senator who doesn’t pile on when an unconventional president causes a ruckus.

We’ll find out after Election Day.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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